Kano Jigoro was a unique martial arts figure. Born into a financially stable family in the sake business, Kano had access to certain societal perks from a young age. One perk that he put to great use was education. A student of classic literature, philosophy, and pedagogy, Kano quickly became one of the bright minds of his day. Amongst his regular studies, he dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of Jujitsu.

Kano Jigoro judo

A man skilled in both martial arts and philosophy was considered ideal by the Samurai in a post-warring-states Japan. What made Kano different than a typical warrior though was his ability to innovative teaching methods and push his ideas to the public.

Kano was born in 1860, coming into adulthood right as the Meiji Restoration was picking up steam. One of the key elements of the Meiji Restoration was an “opening of doors” to Japan, providing access and legal trade to outside nations. While many Japanese citizens and lawmakers resisted the idea of mingling with foreigners, Kano saw it as an opportunity to grow. Not only did Kano do significant work to get Judo and Kendo involved in the Japanese school systems, he was constantly looking for opportunities to enhance and empower Japanese culture as it related to the outside world.

Ulysses Grant Judo

President Ulysses S. Grant

In 1879 President Ulysses S. Grant embarked upon a worldwide goodwill tour and visited the Emporer of Japan. While there, Grant witnessed a Jujitsu demonstration, of which Kano played a part. This demo sparked an interest in Jujitsu and Judo which quickly worked its way back to the U.S. Professors and men of influence in the United States began traveling to Japan in order to train and invited Judo instructors to America in order to share some of their art.

The steady spread of Judo persisted throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s. Concurrently, in the early to mid 1900s karate was beginning to reveal itself to the outside world, including Japan. It was the combination of Judo’s existing popularity, karate’s early exposure, and war that ultimately brought the Okinawan fighting art to the United States.

1. Judo Inspires and Intrigues a Young Generation

In the 1920s through the 1940s a generation of young Americans were born into a world that possessed ready access to The Far East. They might not have realized it, but just a few short years before their birth Japan had been a completely closed country wherein visitors without express permission to dock could be executed on sight. However, to the youth of the 20’s-40’s a new and interesting sport was working it’s way from Japan, often through Hawaii, and into the United States. It was Judo, and with the skills of Judo, it was said, a small man could toss about a much larger man with ease.

Men such as Yamashita Yoshitsugu, Tomita Tsunejiro, Maeda Mitsuyo, and more had been teaching and putting on demonstrations for a number of years in the US. Judo was even seeping into pop culture as professional wrestling demonstrations frequently featured mysterious Judo players with inexplicable skills.

Young men and women of this generation grew up with a sense of mystique surrounding the Asian fighting arts and wondered if they too could master these methods. When World War II struck a number of men were sent overseas. After the conclusion of the war many of these men were stationed in Japan as peacekeepers. It was during that time they had an opportunity to search for Judo. Directly after World War II America had placed a “Peace Clause” on Japan, disarming them and quelling many activities that were seen as martial in nature. However, Judo was deemed more of a sport than a fighting art and so it was allowed to stay. In addition, karate had been integrated into the University system and also adapted to be a sport. The American servicemen in Japan, while looking for Judo, sometimes found karate instead.

From the time of World War II all the way to the Cold War and eventually the Vietnam War, American men were sent to Okinawa to maintain peace and prepare for combative engagement. These men also sought out Judo. There was Judo to be had on Okinawa, but karate was in even more abundance. It was that initial generation of servicemen, both in Japan and Okinawa, that truly started the birth of karate in America when they returned home from duty.

2. Judo Provides a Framework for Schools

william dometrich

William Dometrich – An early karate pioneer that utilized Judo schools

When the American servicemen returned from Japan and Okinawa they were rarely well-off in terms of finances. They had earned a living while in the service, but it was still difficult to secure a large building to train in. As a result, the much more established Judo locations proved enticing both in terms of cost and accessibility.

There are many examples of some of the earliest karate pioneers borrowing time and space inside of Judo halls. In the Vine Street Dojo in Cincinnati both Harvey Eubanks and William Dometrich established their programs. Chris DeBaise, a protege of Peter Urban, taught Chuck Merriman inside the dojo of “The Judo Twins” in New York City. The examples are plentiful, and there can be no question that the facilities established by Judo helped karate in its earliest stages.

3. Judo Lays the Groundwork for Competition

Karate in the United States has grown in two primary ways, one as a traditional means of self defense, the other as a sport. The impact of competition karate was immense throughout the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s. While it has tapered in its cultural impact, tournaments and competitions are still an important part of karate’s culture. Judo helped set the scene for that development.

judo tournament

Judo tournaments helped lay the groundwork for karate events

In 1953 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) created its First National Judo Championships in San Jose, California. Judo had been a staple in smaller contests throughout the American University system and was creating well attended, well operated events. Meanwhile, at that time, there were barely more than handful of operating karate schools in the United States. In 1946 Robert Trias had started his fledgling program down in Arizona. Other pioneers like Ed Parker, Cecil Patterson, and more would come later, but by the time they were established Judo was already operating at a nationwide level.

When pioneers like Trias ultimately organized and staged their own events, there was a strong  example set by the Judo governing bodies. This was important not only as a guidepost for the likes of Trias, but also as a precedent for the American government in how to handle Asian martial arts in a sporting arena. Before Judo, homegrown combative sports like boxing and wrestling were the primary focus. Judo broke the ice and proved that a foreign art could sustain massive appeal.

Final Thoughts

It can be funny to think about how young karate is internationally. We think of it as a practice rooted in generations of tradition (which it is), and yet it is still in a state of growth and experimentation. Some of the earliest pioneers of the karate in the West are still with us, and for that we are thankful. We as karateka should also be thankful for the tireless work of those Judo players who came over from Japan, braving a new world to share their art. We should also remember the early American Judo players who had the courage and curiosity to take on a different culture, get thrown around countless times, and share what they learned with the world.